You see, rock & roll is about the anarchic expression of unmediated exuberance otherwise known as fun. It shares top billing with sex and drugs because it celebrates the same escape into the confines of a transcendent moment. Heck, when the phrase was coined, rock & roll was sex. It's been mugged more than once, creeping as it does down back alleys and lingering in dark bars looking to score. Emerson, Lake and Palmer nearly clubbed it to death in the early '70s. Art rock? Could you imagine "art sex?" And why would you ever want to? The implied separation of object and participant is anathema to the joy of rock.
From soul-selling Sabbath, to Van Halen's whisky-soaked flying kicks, to the mane-tossing Bon Jovi (who offered such transcendence, fans wanted to die after seeing them, something I can relate to for an entirely different reason), these bands all got it. Rock's illegtimate godson, punk, also got it. Spawned in a garage after a discotheque hangover, it channeled its societal animus into a feral "fuck you" we all could share.
Yet, like a peach desiccating on a window ledge all of the last decade, mopey emo-narcissists, angst-ridden nÅ¸-nihilists and irony-drenched post-hipsters have reduced rock to habitual masturbation, as empty of love juice as the airbrushed pop that passes for a sexual come-on these days.
This comes to mind while listening to Supergrass, because from the moment the Oxford, England quartet burst out of rock's hips in 1995 with "I Should Coco," they have epitomized rock & roll's life-giving spirit. With youthful verve befitting their then-teenage years, they sang about feeling "Alight," their "Mansize Rooster" and being "Caught by the Fuzz" with all the furious melodic spunk of latter-day Buzzcocks.
Fomented by childhood school chums Gaz Coombes (guitar/vocals) and Danny Goffey (drums), Supergrass throbs with rambunctious, sing-along catchiness that beds both pop-punk bounce and '60s British mod's R&B soul, giving a knowing wink to the hormonal lust just beneath their stylish veneer. The group drove that initial musical thrust into the British charts and then courted the critics, who slavered over them lovingly. "Pumping on Your Stereo," off their 1999 self-titled album, pays tribute to those days, coyly opining that the "wider the eyes, the bigger the lies."
Coombes confides that line is a reference to those early, amphetamine-addled days when the first blush of success prompted adventurous consumption and jackrabbit-fast 25-minute sets.
"We kind of got swept away in it, I suppose. We did that record and then it all went crazy," he says by phone from England. Of course, now it's eight years later; he's married and has a three-month-old baby, but while his home life is staid, "Touring is a different story, because you're doing gigs every night, and you're right in the middle of it. There isn't much time to chill out and relax, so you just get your head into it and go for it. It's still as much fun as it's ever been. We kind of take it easy sometimes, but we still go for it."
Supergrass is supporting their new (fourth) album, "Life on Other Planets," their best and liveliest since the debut. Having reined in some of their last albums' musical excesses, they've settled into a modulated, hard-edged pop pulse: It's a touch of glam strut, lying spread-eagled at the three-way of The Who,
T. Rex and The Jam. Like a carefree cackle from the end of the bar, the album rediscovers their young, devil-may-care attitude, while wielding its thrust with a crafty sophistication they never could've managed when they were callow.
"We produced the last two records and I think maybe we were overproducing in places where we didn't have to. We could've just simplified it all a little bit," says Coombes. Now, they've embraced an extemporaneous, live-to-tape recording ethos, "keeping little bits of vibe, you know? Moments, mistakes, or whatever."
Some of the vibe came from the south of France, where much of the album was composed, with the help of fine red wine and rich food. "Like 'Exile on Main St.?'" I ask.
"Yeah, but not as many drugs and women," Coombes replies.
Maybe, but Supergrass still has an abiding love for some drugs.
We shared a joint in Coombes' swanky, cavernous Soho Grand hotel room several years back. That night I saw the band at the Bowery Ballroom and hobnobbed after the show. There was an exceptionally attractive, long-haired brunette with us, who seemed peculiarly annoyed with me.
I couldn't understand, as I had hardly ogled her. In fact, I'd tried to ignore her (as I do all fantasies I have no chance of realizing). When we all ducked out of the bar to smoke some (more) herb at someone's house around the corner, said brunette straggled behind a bit, and someone yelled, "Come on, Liv." That's when I realized who she was, and that it was certainly my mistake in not paying Princess Tyler the jaw-agape respect she obviously felt was owed to her.
Which is a reminder: There's an intuitive impulse toward moments of transcendent beauty we're wise not to ignore. Supergrass -- with their music's synonymity with sex, drugs and rock & roll -- only help to emphasize that wisdom.